COUPLING (2000-2004) – One of TV’s best sitcoms, British or otherwise

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The following is my contribution to The Small Screen Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Maddielovesherclassicfilms on Feb. 20, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on their favorite TV series!

 

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British TV writer Steven Moffatt is best known these days for the TV series “Sherlock” and a “Dr. Who” revival. But long before those came around, he was responsible for a gem of a sitcom titled “Coupling.”

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“Coupling” is blatantly based on the evolution of the relationship between Moffat and his girlfriend and then wife, Sue Vertue (also the show’s producer). (As if to drive home the point, the show’s lead characters are named Steve and Sue.) Aside from its traditional three-camera, live-audience setup, the series uses a variety of Annie Hall-like techniques to examine love and relationships: split-screen, depicting a single event from three perspectives, and even performing half of an episode in Hebrew. As Moffat put it, his simple setting encouraged “an epic, ridiculous way of telling an ordinary story.”

Most American viewers are quick to compare the series to “Friends,” as it’s a sitcom about the intertwining of several close friends’ lives. I hate to sound sacrilegious, but I much prefer “Coupling” to “Friends.” I always got the feeling that the “Friends” writers were happy to drop characterizations if they could get a quick laugh (for example, daffy Phoebe suddenly coming up with a searing witticism). By contrast, Moffatt said his show’s laughs sprang from context and that he wrote “no jokes per se” — and I feel his show is much richer for it.

My only complaint about “Coupling” is its fourth season; hence, I will deal with that later as a separate entity. Here is a summary of all of the characters, save for one that was added in that fourth season.

Steve

Steve Taylor (Jack Davenport) is a well-meaning guy who is somewhat milquetoast. In the series’ first episode, Steve is shown having trouble breaking off with his clingy and rather ditzy girlfriend Jane Christie (Gina Bellman). He eventually hooks up with Susan Walker (Sarah Alexander), and while their love appears to be true, Steve often cowers under Susan’s short temper.

Susan

Susan is a successful but sometimes insecure career woman. The bulk of Steve and Susan’s exchanges revolve around their arguments and differences of opinion.

Jeff

Jeff Murdock (Richard Coyle) is a co-worker and ex-date of Susan’s and is Steve’s best friend. Jeff is well-meaning like Steve but is even flightier than him, eager to find a woman but mostly unable to carry on coherent conversations with potential dates.

Sally

Sally Harper (Kate Isitt), like her best friend Susan, runs a successful business but is even more insecure than her friend (Are you sensing a pattern here?). She sometimes comes off as mean-spirited but is really only (only?) mostly paranoid.

Patrick

Patrick Maitland (Ben Miles) has a one-track mind when it comes to women, and that track revolves around getting laid. He is an ex-boyfriend to Susan, who refers to him as “donkey” and “tripod” when referencing his below-the-belt appendage. It is this that first perks Sally’s interest in Patrick. Patrick and Sally end up being the show’s romantic counterpart to Steve and Susan.

Jane

Jane, as started earlier, has been dumped by Steve, though it takes her several episodes to admit this to herself. As the series evolves, we come to realize why Steve couldn’t take her anymore; she comes on strong and very flighty. She does traffic reports for a local radio station, and her main claim to popularity is her sexually explicit reporting.

As in the best sitcoms, “Coupling’s” laughs (as noted by Moffatt) come from the characters’ quirks and interactions. I would recommend nearly any episode of the first three seasons as great introductory viewing for the show. However, IMHO, the show reached its peak in the eighth episode of Season 2, “Naked.” 

Julia

In this episode (a showcase for the wonderful Richard Boyle), Jeff goes to a storage closet at his office and happens to bump into his new supervisor, Julia (a winning performance by the late Lou Gish, shown above). Later, Jeff and Julia, separately, recount to the series’ men and women their closet encounter, and in each case, they embellish their recounting with hyperbolic fantasy to cover up the fact that they were very attracted to each other. To top it off, Jeff is about to turn 30 and is lamenting the fact that he cannot manage to have an ongoing relationship with a woman.

The rest of the episode shows Jeff and Julia playing cat-and-mouse, coming right up to the edge of admitting their attraction but shying away at the last moment. I don’t consider it a SPOILER ALERT to state that Jeff and Julia finally get together, because the way that it happens results in one of the most beautifully realized sitcom-episode finales I’ve ever seen. (The episode is embedded below; by all means, please watch and enjoy.)

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Sad to say, I feel that this delightful sitcom jumped the rails in Season 4. That season’s very first episode came off as ominous for three reasons:

  1. With no explanation, some interesting plot threads that were left dangling at the end of Season 3 were inexplicably abandoned by Moffatt.
  2. Richard Coyle feared becoming typecast as hapless Jeff, so he left the series at the end of Season 3, refusing requests to do a “goodbye episode.” This resulted in what I consider the series’ biggest mistake.
  3. OliverJust as “The Brady Bunch” started losing viewers when they introduced Cousin Oliver, so “Coupling” went stale when they introduced the character of Oliver Morris (Richard Mylan). While the other characters were rich enough to mine for three seasons’ worth of stories, Oliver’s main characteristic is how accident-prone and clueless he is. Unlike with Jeff, it’s not caused by insecurity or nervousness around women — he’s just stupid. This is not a character for the ages.

Probably the most watchable episodes are the season’s final two episodes, which nicely resolve some plot threads among the characters; otherwise, I consider this season a wash-out.

Other than that, I think “Coupling” is one of the all-time funniest and best-written sitcoms ever. I like to think that, if the show had returned for a fifth season, it would have brought back Richard Coyle and gone all “Dallas” on us, sheepishly admitting that the fourth season was merely a bad dream.

CRISIS IN SIX SCENES – Woody Allen is his old(er) self

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If you enjoy vintage Woody Allen, don’t let the critics discourage you from seeing his Amazon TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes. In TV terms, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, and it wasn’t intended to do so. It’s a screwball comedy that delivers a fair share of laughs — a far greater share, in fact, than any of Allen’s most recent movie comedies have garnered.

The six-episode series is set in the 1960’s. Allen plays Sid (or “S.J.,” in his more pretentious moments) Munsinger, a semi-successful novelist and former copywriter who is now trying to sell a TV sitcom. Elaine May plays Kay, a marriage counselor and Sid’s quietly grounded wife. Their happy middle-class existence gets thrown for a loop by Lennie (a surprisingly funny Miley Cyrus), a radical on the run who needs a place to hide out while she plans her exodus to Cuba.

Lennie has an unexpected effect on everyone who saunters through the Munsinger household. She radicalizes Alan (John Magaro), a young friend of the family who is already engaged to a girl Sid had set him up with. And Lennie transforms Kay’s thinking to the point that she brings Chairman Mao’s writings and similar Communist-fueled work to the book club she runs.

This could have been a one-joke concept, but Allen gets a lot of funny plot threads out of it. Lennie dismisses the Munsingers as “limousine liberals,” but meanwhile she’s eating them out of house and home while she bemoans the children overseas who are starving to death. And you haven’t lived until you have seen a bunch of elderly book-club members get their revolutionary fire lit. (When one of them suggests that they all go to the local draft board and protest by sitting naked in front of it, one prim woman says that stripping to her bra and panties is as much as she can handle.)

The worst that you can say about the series is that it’s a bit leisurely paced, but in these days of rapid-fire entertainment, that might just be a virtue. And the final episode wraps things up in best farcical style, as a parade of ever more eccentric visitors come through Sid’s front door.

Cable TV has now set the bar so high that many viewers and critics take it as a personal offense if each new series doesn’t try to change the face of television. Crisis in Six Scenes is funny — just simply funny. Would that more TV comedies would aim for that modest goal.

THE INCREDIBLE JEWEL ROBBERY (1959) – The Marx Brothers’ day at the finish line

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Today is the 57th anniversary of the TV broadcast of the Marx Brothers’ final filmed appearance together. (Whew, that was a mouthful!)  Harpo and Chico Marx appeared as Harry and Nick, two inept thieves who try to pull off a jewelry heist, in “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” an episode of “General Electric Theater,” a CBS anthology series that was hosted by future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

(From here on in, this blog entry is one big SPOILER, if you care.)

The episode is primarily noted for its cameo appearance by the stars’ brother Groucho at the end. The episode is played completely without dialogue until the final scene, where Groucho joins his brothers in a police line-up and says, “We don’t talk until we see our lawyer!”

CBS’ press release for the show stated, “If you watch the show you’ll see a familiar face equipped with mustache and leer. Because of his contract terms [Groucho was still doing ‘You Bet Your Life’ on NBC], his name can’t be mentioned, but he is not Jerry Colonna.”

I was 11 years old when I first read about this TV episode, and I felt as though I’d have given anything to see it. Now it is readily available for viewing on YouTube — it’s embedded below, in two parts — and it couldn’t be more disappointing.

First, the entire premise is played out at such a literal level that even a kindergartener would be rolling his eyes at it. At one point, Harpo is trying to paint a police-car logo onto his car to make it look like a cop car. The logo is circular, so Harpo gets a spare tire, holds it up to the car, and traces the outside of it with his paintbrush in order to paint a circle. Haw-haw.

Second, the silent-movie conceit would be a lot more enjoyable if the show was truly silent. The episode’s musical score is loud and intrusive, and worse, there’s a laugh track all the way through the show to tell us when we’re supposed to guffaw. Since when do the Marx Brothers need a laugh track to tell us they’re funny?

Sadly, this is a show for comedy completists who feel as though they have to see everything their heroes ever did, rather than having entertainment value on its own. Once you’ve viewed “The Incredible Jewel Robbery” one time, your curiosity will be more than satisfied.

Here’s Part 1:

And Part 2:

 

 

10 Great Monty Python Sketches You Might Never Have Heard Of

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I have Monty Python on the brain tonight. That’s because tomorrow night, my son and I are attending a local screening of the 40th-anniversary edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then, four days after that, we’re going to see John Cleese and Eric Idle doing a live show at the Florida Theatre.

So I decided to succumb to list-mania and make a list of 10 terrific Monty Python sketches. However, I didn’t want to go for the obvious. Even non-Python fans are familiar with “Spam” and “Argument Clinic” and “The Lumberjack Song.” But in 14 years of sketch creation, the Pythons came up with plenty of material that might not be as equally legendary, but is surely as equally funny.

So here are 10 of my favorites. Click on the sketch titles to link to them on YouTube. Some of them are from their TV series, others are vocal-only sketches from their record albums (Did you know that the Pythons did albums as well?). All are quite the laugh riots.

Logician – This is from the Holy Grail soundtrack album (whose actual title is too irritatingly long to print here). The album has snippets of dialogue from the film, interspersed with Python comedy bits. This sketch comes after the sound bite of the movie’s scene where the “man of science” determines that a woman is definitely a witch because she weighs the same as a duck and is made of wood (don’t ask). John Cleese plays a logician who tries to argue this point and then goes off on an unrelated tangent about his wife.

String – From Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, again featuring John Cleese, here as an advertising agent. He wants to help a client (Eric Idle) promote a collection of string that he’d inherited. But the client says there’s a major problem with the string. No problem for Cleese’s one-track-minded ad guy!

“What Do You” Quiz Game – From Monty Python’s Previous Record. Eric Idle is the caffeinated host of a radio game show that has very complicated rules. (Ironically, years later, Idle performed this hilarious sketch in a guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” where it bombed like the results of The Manhattan Project.)

The Bishop – From Episode 17 of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Terry Jones plays the title role in this outrageous mash-up of religious pretentiousness and James Bond movies. (I’ve nothing against men of the cloth, but some of them get offed in some extremely creative ways here.)

Milkman – From Episode 3 of “Flying Circus,” and featuring Michael Palin and Carol Cleveland at her most come-hither. It runs only a minute and is completely wordless, but it’s a gem.

Deja Vu – The finale of “Flying Circus” Episode 16, and surely one of their best-ever closings. Michael Palin plays the host of a show titled “It’s the Mind,” where he examines the phenomenon of deja vu…over and over and over.

The Attila the Hun Show – Thank you, Monty Python, for documenting the fact that inane sitcoms are not strictly limited to America. If you can get past a quite unforgivable blackface stereotype from Graham Chapman, this one is worth its weight in gold. This sketch is from “Flying Circus” Episode 20, as is…

Take Your Pick – John Cleese, as a smilingly venomous game-show host taking out his hostilities on a female contestant (Terry Jones), is laugh-till-you-cry hysterical.

The Adventures of Ralph Mellish – From the album The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Michael Palin narrates the not-quite-breathtaking story of one man’s almost perilous journey to work.

The Background to History, Part 4 – Also from Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Graham Chapman hosts an assessment of Britain’s medieval open-field farming system as it might have been interpreted by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

After watching and listening to all of that, you have every right to declare:

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Make me laugh!

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This week, one of my favorite bloggers, TV scripter and novelist Ken Levine, asked: “Can comedy stand the test of time?” As an example, Levine cited Steve Martin’s once-famous catchphrase, “Ex-cuse ME!”, and posited that a current teenager wouldn’t have any idea why someone from the 1970’s would laugh at such a thing. Levine also mentioned how the Marx Brothers enjoyed a 1960’s and ’70s revival that seems to have dimmed down considerably since then.

Well, can comedy stand the test of time? My answer is:

If it’s comedy that you’re still talking about, then yes.

I grew up in that hallowed era of the 1970’s. All around me, on TV and in revival movie theaters, were testaments to the eternal comedic appeal of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy. Then I got to witness the budding of comic masters such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Monty Python.

These days, my college-age son and daughter do the usual scoffing at their old man’s pop-culture tastes, yet they’ve managed to pick and choose things they like from that era. My daughter has enjoyed Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the musical version of The Producers with me. I’m not the Cheech & Chong fan that I was as a teenager, but my son definitely enjoys their streetwise humor. And while neither of my kids is a die-hard Monty Python fan like me, my son is head over heels over Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and my daughter has let down her guard enough to let the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “Argument Clinic” sketches make her laugh like crazy.

Conversely, the kids enjoy comedy that doesn’t terribly interest me, such as Amy Schumer (daughter) and Louis C.K. (son). I’ve watched some of their work and don’t particularly “get” them, but I can appreciate why the next generation does.

The thing is, there’s nothing more subjective than comedy. If someone enjoys the same comedy that you do, you have had some measure of bonding with that person. And if someone doesn’t pick up on a comedian who makes you tear up with laughter, expect the very definition of “stony bitch face” from that other person.

Anyway, I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ve long given up on trying to apologize for or rationalize my tastes in pop culture. Like any comedy fan, I like what I like, and if you don’t agree…

Well, ex-CUUUUUUUSE ME!!!!!!!!

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Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball in a 1965 TV appearance

Forgive me if you’ve heard this, but I have to provide a little background for those who haven’t.

Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton became friends on the M-G-M lot in the 1940’s. He was a gag man and some-time supporting player with his movie-starring days behind him; she was a supporting player with her TV-starring days ahead of her. It’s said that Ball gained much of her physical comedy skills from Keaton.

The only time they ever appeared together was in “A Salute to Stan Laurel,” a well-intended but majorly botched 1965 tribute to Laurel broadcast by CBS a few months after his death. One of the few highlights of the special was Ball and Keaton’s sketch, a routine that Keaton had previously done on stage with his wife Eleanor.

Here, at the 6:07 mark, Dick Van Dyke introduces the bit. Harvey Korman can be seen as an irate cop. Also, the unfolding-newspaper bit is taken wholesale from Keaton’s 1921 short subject The High Sign.